Duncan Findlater on the results of Hobsons’ survey of international students

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Our universities are respected worldwide. Four of our universities are in the global top ten. As such, Higher Education is a major export market for the UK, with hundreds and thousands of students from across the globe applying to and attending British Universities each year. It is estimated that international students contribute £14 billion to the UK economy.

But, after a 29-year period of a sustained rise in the number of international students registered on full-time programmes at Higher Education institutions, in 2012-13 the UK saw a drop in the number of international applicants. In particular, 2012-13 saw a decline in applicants from within the EU and from the Indian subcontinent.

In order to understand this change, we surveyed 18,393 students from over 195 countries.

The polling provides insight into the international student decision making process, how they assess teaching quality and what matters most when comparing countries and institutions.

The survey used conjoint analysis, where respondents were asked how important various factors were in deciding where to study and asked to rate these factors on a scale, enabling us to see how important certain factors are compared to others.

The biggest factor that determines choice is the quality of education compared to their home country. This mirrors findings from other research, for example from the British Council.

Our survey identifies key factors which contribute to international students’ perception of quality: rankings in international league tables – both in regards to the subject and the institution as a whole – and the graduate employment rate.

The other top reasons are international recognition of qualifications (84%) and the country’s attitude towards international students (79%).

The perception of strict immigration policies may therefore be one contributory factor for the recent decline in international students. Interestingly, our survey also shows the ability to stay and work in a country after their degree is one of the least important factors for why students choose particular countries.

The survey also examined the impact of fee levels on student decision-making. It finds that universities could raise fees to £11,000 without that impacting on student decision-making. But demand is not inelastic. If raised to £14,000, this starts to deter international students.

International students will continue to be vital for British prosperity, so it is vital that universities are still able to attract the best international students.

Our survey suggests that emphasising the employability of their graduates can be one important way for institutions to reverse the decline.

In this sense, international students may not be so different from their UK counterparts. 

The full survey can be found here.

Duncan Findlater is Director of Client and External Relations at Hobsons

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